It’s 3:15 pm on a Monday afternoon and I’m strolling into the Food Bank’s Community Kitchen in West Harlem, where I volunteer three days a week. I stop for a moment to look at the menu. It’s chicken day: curried chicken with rice and broccoli, fresh baked bread, apples, salad and juice.
When I notice the date, I do a double take. My mind races a bit, I check again, and it’s the second to last week of the month. This is about the time every month when our lines really grow, as many New Yorkers struggle to stretch their budgets till the end of the month. At about 4 pm it’s going to get crazy in here, and I have to mentally I prepare myself.
A favorite pastime of some of the clients is to compare the plates to see which is bigger. They’re pretty much all the same but when you’re turning to a soup kitchen because you can’t afford a full month’s worth of groceries, a small difference can feel really big.
The absolute best part for me is when the clients finish eating and they walk by the serving table to say “Thank you, that hit the spot,” or “My compliments to the chef.” Or looking over the table and seeing the smile on their faces while they eat…that’s something I take with me. It brings satisfaction knowing it’s a job well done.
Emily is in her 80s and reminds me of my grandmother. While she is independent, I can see that she finds it difficult to carry the heavy, meal tray to her seat at the Community Kitchen, where I work. So I, or a volunteer, do it for her. Last night, Emily smiled and thanked me about a half dozen times. I just smiled back, grateful to be able to help.
Emily sometimes brings her six-year-old granddaughter to our soup kichen to eat with her, and she’s told me on more than one occasion how grateful she is that the Food Bank For New York City is here for her during this period of her life. Living on a fixed income of Social Security and a small pension, it’s difficult for her to meet her budget every month and without our soup kitchen, she say’s she wouldn’t be able to eat.
No one aspires to be impoverished and rely upon soup kitchen meals for day-to-day survival, let alone work their whole life to then find themselves on a food pantry line — but with the economy the way it is, there are more senior faces in the Community Kitchen's dining room than ever before. So many Emilys with nowhere to turn but the Food Bank's network of soup kitchens, senior programs and food pantries.
But for our Emily there is good news. Recently came to the Community Kitchen — this time to be enrolled in the Food Stamp Program (now known as SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). And, while I’ll miss her visits, it’s great to know that once she begins receiving food stamps, we won’t be seeing much of Emily in the Community Kitchen anymore.
The tax season begins in earnest for most New Yorkers in late January, but here at the Food Bank it really begins in early October. You see, the Food Bank’s Free Income Tax Services program utilizes close to 500 staff and volunteers — including approximately 250 IRS-certified volunteer tax preparers and translators fluent in more than five languages. From October all the way through January, when our tax sites open their doors, the Food Bank works hard to ensure that all the training and outreach necessary to provide top-notch tax services to New York City’s working poor is complete.
When tax day finally arrives, the months of hard work is rewarded by the impact our tax services team knows we are making on our city. This year, our Free Income Tax Services program helped complete more than 37,000 returns, providing over $65 million in tax refunds and credits for low-income New Yorkers. In addition to the benefit this brings directly to our tax service clients, it is also gratifying to know that bringing $65 million back into New York City is a boon to the local economy during the difficult economic times we still find ourselves in.
A program that brings tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers to our doors to address their finances also provides a unique opportunity for the Food Bank to address food poverty on many levels. In addition to tax services, the Food Bank helps to connect our client to available services including food stamps and low-cost health insurance options.
Helping our clients make long-term changes to their financial health, our staff also provides an introduction to SaveUSA — a New York City program that helps low-income New Yorkers open savings accounts — as well as a new pilot program from the Intuit Financial Freedom Foundation for low-income entrepreneurs, financial management and tax preparation.
While the tax season ends for most people on April 15, the Food Bank continues to provide services at our Community Kitchen & Food Pantry in Harlem — helping our clients respond to IRS disputes and continuing to file current and past year returns.
As our work certainly carries on, I have to extend a huge thank you to all of our supporters — particularly our army of volunteers, tax-season staff and partners. We simply could not have brought more than $65 million to our low-income neighbors without your support.
If you would like to join the effort to bring tax assistance to NYC next year, email us with your information and we will email you detailed information when the 2012 tax season gets closer!
Being a resident of New York, I experience my fair share of tourists and visitors, and spring break is no exception! With the onslaught of teens, tweens and families visiting the “Big Apple” in late April, I was pleasantly surprised to meet a group of high school students at our Community Kitchen who are more interested in community service than Cancun.
These were not your usual spring breakers. They were not in their bikinis and board shorts — instead, they were wearing aprons and gloves, helping our pantry customers shop for their weekly groceries. Part of a larger group of 49 visiting from Erie, PA, this marks the tenth year that Cathedral Preparatory School has organized an alternative Spring Break to New York City. The group sees the sights in the evenings, and daytime is spent volunteering at programs throughout the five boroughs.
After volunteering, the group comes together to reflect on the day’s work, feeling great about serving hundreds of meals at Project Hospitality or helping bag groceries for some of the four thousand families who visit the food bank’s pantry. However, Chris, the group’s adult chaperone, made it very clear that despite feeling exhilarated by helping so many New Yorkers, the group also feels saddened by the enormous need found in our city. “Even one person is one too many,” he expressed to me while discussing the magnitude of poverty in New York. “It feels good to be helping so many people, but it’s also hard because we wish we didn’t have to help any.”
This is a sentiment expressed by many who work with the food bank. We are happy to have the ability to help the four million New Yorkers struggling to afford food; however we wish we didn’t have to. I agree with Chris, even one hungry New Yorker is one too many.
Last month I volunteered a little of my time to drop off materials at a few restaurants participating in Time Out For Hunger. I specifically asked for restaurants in the Lower East Side for a couple of reasons. First, I love the walk from the Food Bank’s office in the Financial District. And, second, for me it was a perfect excuse to drop by The Pickle Guys (they weren’t part of Time Out For Hunger, but I am convinced they brine the best pickles in the world, so I think they deserve a mention).
The walk to the LES always reminds me why I love New York City. It may be crowded and it may be dirty, but I have never encountered a city packed so full of history and diversity. The route I walk takes me past Ancient Order of Hibernians Drive, a building still marked as the Five Points Mission, a Buddhist temple, at least one synagogue, innumerous durians, under the Manhattan bridge and on.
I also can’t help but be aware of how much poverty exists along this short route — even above Delancey, where the LES is now more well known for designer boutiques than for its tenement rows. Using our Food Program Locator, I found that just in 10002 — the zip code where I delivered our materials — there are six food pantries, one soup kitchen and two senior centers that serve free meals.
It still amazes me to find so much need in our city, even where at first glance you wouldn’t expect it. Take a look at your own zip code, or the zip where you work. You may be surprised.
p.s. Next week is Volunteer Appreciation Week, so check back for more posts about volunteering.
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